Farewell, ‘school on the hill’

Emotions swell in Norwood as beloved building comes down

The old Norwood High is being demolished in sections. The new high school has traces of its predecessor, such as a grand entrance and clock tower. The old Norwood High is being demolished in sections. The new high school has traces of its predecessor, such as a grand entrance and clock tower. (Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Jennette Barnes
Globe Correspondent / July 28, 2011

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NORWOOD - Before long, what remains of the venerable old Norwood High School will be torn down. Behind it stands a state-of-the-art high school, set to open in September, with a new clock tower mimicking the old as if saluting a wise old general.

The new tower gleams white in the sun, nearly identical to the one it will replace. Here, too, are the tall, slender columns and triangular pediment that gave Norwood High the noble appearance of a university building facing a broad green.

The resemblance made saying goodbye more bearable, but it hasn’t been easy for this proud community from which thousands of people turned out for a farewell last month at the old “school on the hill’’ - a nickname immortalized in the school song.

When the new school was built, Jerry Miller, president of the alumni association, felt like he was having his cake and eating it, too - cherishing the old while embracing the new. But he couldn’t help his mixed feelings when he visited the site last week and saw one wing being demolished. “It’s progress,’’ he said. “The school has to come down sooner or later. When you see it, it hits you and you say, ‘There it goes.’’’

In the last few weeks, moms from the neighborhood have steered their strollers past the site to give their little ones a look at the action. Three-year-old David Carreiro, seated next to his little brother Thomas, watched intently as a bulldozer stockpiled loam from the front lawn for reuse after the demolition.

Their mother, Nora Carreiro, said the old building was lovely on the outside, but that didn’t stop her from supporting a new school. “If they feel like they needed a new structure to accommodate people’s needs, I support that,’’ she said.

Another woman who lives nearby, who declined to give her name, said that she met her future husband in the halls of the school, but that she, too, supported the bittersweet demolition so her young son and daughter would have a 21st-century education.

They certainly will.

Far from the chalkboards of yesteryear and conventional dry-erase boards, each classroom in the new building will feature an interactive board on which teachers and students can view a projected computer screen and control the computer right from the board. The teacher can display worksheets, have students write on them with a stylus, and then mark and save them. Wireless access points are mounted on hallway ceilings.

In addition, the school offers a language laboratory, modern science and library facilities, an 800-seat theater with a deep stage, and a double-length gymnasium with 12 basketball hoops on two full-size courts. An elevated track overlooks the gym, and the railings around the track put school spirit on exuberant display: They are Norwood blue, decorated with gold silhouettes of mustangs, the school mascot.

The building is energy efficient, employing motion-detection lights and high-efficiency heat, using natural gas instead of oil. Solar panels cover the roof of the gym, and water will be collected from the roof for use in toilets. A central courtyard gives the classrooms plenty of natural light.

In the library, groupings of upholstered chairs lend a collegiate feel. The school also boasts a small lecture hall with theater seating. Colored blocks on the walls create a granite-like look in the gym and main hallways, a touch that assistant project manager Bryan Jarvis of Compass Project Management credits to Ai3 Architects. Called ground-face block, it’s inexpensive but attractive, he said.

Expense almost always tops the list of concerns when a community builds a public school, but Norwood saved money on the $68.7 million project by reusing a design created for Whitman-Hanson Regional High School. Norwood High, the first school to take advantage of a state program that encourages communities to reuse successful designs, was expected to save 20 to 25 percent on design costs. The program also helps construction projects reduce costly change orders, and it earns communities an extra 5 percent on their state reimbursement.

Principal George Usevich couldn’t say exactly how much Norwood saved on design, but he did say the project is running slightly under budget. A few contingency items still need to be paid for, so he can’t be sure whether the school will still be under budget in the end.

Other new schools planned for communities south of Boston using the model design approach include Plymouth North High School, which is under construction, a new middle school in Quincy, and a high school in East Bridgewater. Marshfield has just begun planning for a new high school.

During construction in Norwood, education continued in the old building without disruption, a point of pride for Usevich, who called the endeavor “a textbook project.’’

“It’s been seamless,’’ he said. “It’s been a great ride.’’

Like many folks in Norwood, Usevich has a soft spot for the old school; he’s a graduate himself. But sentiment aside, he said, the building that first sent students into the world in 1926 - less than a decade after the end of World War I - could not realistically deliver the technology or library services today’s students need.

Loath to let go of their beloved school, Norwood residents are happy to see how the new building’s main entrance so closely resembles the old. Although the overall design followed a model, the school has a custom façade.

“Being almost a twin of the façade of the old school, I do believe people were satisfied,’’ said Paula Pelaggi, who taught Spanish at the school for 35 years and serves as secretary of the alumni association. “I really do think that was a significant aspect in having the residents want to vote for a new school.’’

Even the ornamentation of the old pediment has been duplicated. Workers removed the original, made a cast, and molded a new one out of fiberglass, Jarvis said. No one will need to paint those high-up places; the entire clock tower is maintenance-free plastic, reinforced with fiberglass.

The alumni association planned “The Last Hurrah,’’ a day of events in June celebrating the old school. Thousands turned out to see it one last time, traveling from as far away as the Marshall Islands.

They’ll be glad they did, because next month, the iconic front section of the school is expected to be unceremoniously pulled to the ground by the heavy equipment that fascinates youngsters in strollers.

The debris will be sorted, recycled where possible, and the rest ground up and taken away. The four faces of the clock tower and their gears have been salvaged - two for possible display in Norwood, and two by a clock restoration company, according to Jarvis.

Before school starts in September, workers will build a driveway where the rear of the old building stood. Landscaping work in the front, along Nichols Street, was originally scheduled to last until July 2012, but the project is ahead of schedule. The enlarged green space, dubbed the Great Lawn, will include field hockey and lacrosse fields, but they will be free of lines to maintain the aesthetic appeal of the landscape, Jarvis said.

The people of Norwood are excited about their new school. All that remains is to part with the building that inspired a remarkable outpouring of affection.

“We did her proud,’’ Pelaggi said. “It’s been a great goodbye, a great last hurrah.’’

Jennette Barnes can be reached at